In our most recent podcast episode, Dr. Cameron Thompson used a story about transplanting grapevines as a metaphor to explain the development of culture. To move an established grapevine, it is necessary to cut off most of each vine’s branch structure, and it isn’t even possible to keep all the roots. So long as each vine retains enough of the stem and root structure, it can grow again in a new location, even after spending a few months stored in a bucket of soil.
The new branches will be similar to the old ones, but they won’t look completely the same. Even the grapes the transplanted vines produce will taste different due to the influence of a different soil and climate.
Don’t Focus on Cultural Details
This story illustrates a possible mistake about culture. If Christians become fixated on restoring cultural elements from the past, it would be as if someone planted grapes or grape leaves instead of roots. They would rot rather than grow.
Culture, like a leaf, is an emergent phenomena. It grows through complicated, often chaotic processes over time and reflects a group’s collective experience of reality. We can’t “build” or “restore” or “preserve” a culture by acting on it directly, any more than we can hurry the growth of leaves by pulling on them. All we can do is plant the roots or seeds of culture.
Since a culture grows from a group’s experience of reality, a revitalized Christian culture can only grow from the patient work of Christians living out the Faith together in daily life. The new Christian cultures which emerge from community life may have similarities to other cultures which existed in the past, but won’t be identical to them. If Christians are too worried about the details of the culture which will emerge, it will have the same effect as impatient children who dig up seeds to see if anything is happening yet.
The growth of a vine or tree is a good metaphor for other aspects of a developing community. When a tree is planted, it usually doesn’t look much like a tree at all. Young trees look more like insignificant sticks. Very rich people can afford to plant trees instead of sapling sticks; they can hire a crew with heavy machinery to uproot mature trees and move them to a new location. Such trees generally struggle, however. The insignificant sticks planted by those with more modest means (and more patience!) tend to do better in the long run.
Similarly, it is best if a community develops organically, with an openness to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. Attempting to “build” a full-fledged community to fit some preconceived blueprint is a risky way to start. As with tree planting, a “wealthy” approach is more impressive, but not as sustainable for the long run; we need to cultivate humility and poverty of spirit. Beware of those attempting to impose grand visions on a blank slate! Augustine Tardiff discussed this point in our excellent conversation about Madonna House. I’ve also written a blog post on the subject.
The Life of the Church
Christ often used the metaphor of a fruitful vine or tree when speaking of the Church or of an individual’s response to the Lord. Like a growing plant, the Church is a living, vital reality. As such, the Church grows and develops over time. To quote Let Us Dream by Pope Francis:
That has been the tradition of the Church: her understanding and beliefs have expanded and consolidated over time in openness to the Spirit, according to the principle enunciated in the fifth century by St. Vincent of Lerins: “They strengthen with the years, develop with time and become deeper with age.” Tradition is not a museum, true religion is not a freezer, and doctrine is not static but grows and develops, like a tree that remains the same yet which gets bigger and bears more fruit. There are some who claim that God spoke once and for all time—almost always exclusively in the way and the form that those who make this claim know well. They hear the word “discernment” and worry that it’s a fancy way of ignoring the rules or some clever modern ruse to downgrade the truth, when it is quite the opposite. Discernment is as old as the Church. It follows from the promise Jesus made to his disciples that after he was gone the Spirit “will guide you into all truth”. There is no contradiction between being solidly rooted in the truth and at the same time being open to a greater understanding.
As Pope Francis mentions here, this concept of development is often misunderstood. Conservatives are prone to imagining the Church as if it were something like a snapshot or painting of a tree; something static that can only be preserved, but not developed. Progressives often invoke development, but they tend to forget that development entails continuity. They are prone to imagining the Church as if it were a mechanical system that can be modified and redesigned at will. In contrast to these two view is the vision of Pope Francis: the Church as a living tree, growing, changing, maturing, and reacting, but always linked in a vital unity to the past.
It can sometimes be hard to distinguish healthy growth from an aberration. While it would be counterproductive to hack off every new sprout on a growing tree, it would be equally unwise to celebrate the emergence of mushrooms from a tree’s trunk. Some growths are problematic, antagonistic to the health of the tree. Even a tree’s own branches can grow in such a way as to jeopardize the whole.
In the Church, how is one to judge which growths are a true development of the original seed? Fortunately, we don’t have to make this determination on our own; God granted infallibility to the Church for just this reason. Much as we’d call in a tree surgeon to assess the state of our trees, the hierarchy of the Church is charged with discerning spirits. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
It is in this sense that discernment of charisms is always necessary. No charism is exempt from being referred and submitted to the Church’s shepherds. “Their office (is) not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to what is good,” so that all the diverse and complementary charisms work together “for the common good.”
By remaining connected to the Pope and the bishops united with him throughout the world, our lives and our communities will remain connected to the vital sap of Christ’s life in the Church.
Cover Image: Large tree on a tree spade. Photo by Dutchmanindustries, CC BY-SA 3.0